Accidental poet: Mike Bonikowsky on art and faith amid chaos

Accidental poet: Mike Bonikowsky on art and faith amid chaos

Written on 01/07/2021
Ilana Reimer

Interview by Ilana Reimer

Q. Mike, you’re a developmental support worker and poet. You’ve been a Love Is Moving contributor since the magazine began. Could you describe how you discovered your interest in poetry and writing?

A. I started writing in high school. I have always loved words and have always been a reader; that’s been my way of interacting with the world.

I started to struggle with my mental health around Grade 11. I had a lot of thoughts and feelings I couldn’t quite handle, and I found putting them into words was an important survival technique.

I didn’t set out to write poems, but that’s what it turned into. That seemed to be the best format to distill everything that’s going on inside in a way I can look at and actually see, instead of being swallowed, like a tidal wave.

Q. So poetry helps you slow down a bit. Do you find it allows you to zoom in and focus?

A. Definitely. I get overstimulated easily, and I find the act of writing on a physical object with a physical object and being able to see the words helps me.

It seems to slow time. I am able to see the shape of things and measure them out. I can see that each experience has a certain height, width, depth, and weight. It’s not this unfathomable mass.

I feel things deeply. When I feel bad, I feel I have always felt bad, and when I feel good it’s the same. Poetry and writing have been a way of quantifying that: this is how you’re feeling now, but look, last week, you didn’t want to kill yourself. It became a way to mark my internal weather and track patterns.

It’s a way to put things into a manageable size and slow things down to a manageable speed. I think that’s why I’m so surprised when my poetry speaks to someone else, because it’s very personal.

Q. Is there a specific theme you tend to write about most frequently?

A. I tend to write the most when I’m experiencing a crisis or when someone close to me is experiencing a crisis.

I’m not a person who generally writes about happy things. When I feel good and happy, I don’t feel the need to write. I wish that wasn’t the case, but poetry for me is a therapy.

I write when I need to write. It’s just a black wave until I write it down, and then I can see it’s not. It’s actually many different things that have happened to many people, and they have survived and thrived from those things. I can see God is there, also. I find writing is key in seeing God at work in that wave.

Q. Tying into seeing God working through the wave, how do you see your creative work as intertwined with your life as a Christian?

A. My writing is how I pray, really. I have a hard time talking to God in any verbal or traditional way. I find that writing is the most effective and intimate form of prayer for me.

I write down my worst fears and worst-case scenarios and then ask God to show me where He is even if these things come to pass.

I am an anxious person, and I find it helpful to say, Well, if everything I am afraid of is going to happen, this is what it would look like.

And I think that is the human reality in a lot of ways. We are going to die, and there is no way around that. There’s a saying I love, “God loves you, and has a wonderful plan for your death.” I’m not sure who first said that, but it’s true.

There are a lot of wonderful things that will happen in our lives, but also a lot of terrible things, that’s just guaranteed. I look into the heart of that and meditate upon it.

Then I say, Well yes, but how is this altered if the things I believe are true?

Being a Christian poet means I can never leave it at despair, much as I would like to. I don’t have the option of despair anymore. I have to leave room for God to be God. And He always surprises us. It’s always both better and worse than we expect.

I think that’s the message of the incarnation. God is finally with us—and we’re going to murder Him. The best, and then the most terrible thing that could ever happen, and then the best happening again. And that best is even better because of the terrible thing.

That’s a theme I try to explore in my poems because I think it’s the essence of Christianity and the essence of the human experience.

Q. You said earlier you were surprised people resonated with your poetry because it’s so personal. Could you reflect on the role you see poets playing in our society?

A. I think poetry is like exploring the ocean floor. They go down into the Marianas Trench and it’s too cold and too dark. There’s too much pressure for a human to survive, so they send down a little robot.

I think poetry’s a bit like that. It lets us go down into the parts of ourselves and the human experience that are too intense to see any other way. A poem allows us to go into those places and take a little slice of it, sort of like a core sample.

Photo by Kiara Mooney

Q. Have you experienced any insecurities about your creative ability? What has helped you push forward and still choose to share your work with the world?

A. All I have are insecurities about my creative ability. Mostly, I have trouble seeing the value in what I do. The world is a crazy place. There are a lot of bad things going on, and writing poetry seems very privileged and ineffectual. It doesn’t seem like much in light of the human condition.

I’d never be one of those people who’d say poetry is going to save the world. I don’t believe that. I just know that for whatever reason, it’s what I have to give.

For a long time, I didn’t think it was worth saying, but then I realized that’s not an offence to me, that’s an offence to God. If He’s given me something to say, I better say it. The reaction and reception aren’t up to me.

I’ve had a lot of insecurity about poetry in general. I’ve never been particularly proud of being a poet. I wanted to be a novelist. But I spent eight years writing a novel, and it was terrible. Yet I could write poems, and people responded to them. In many ways, it was a humiliation.

I think that’s something God does to us—we want to be this person, we want to be cool, but God says, no, you’re a Christian poet. And if there’s anything less cool than that, I’d like to hear it. But that’s what God has made me to be, so I’d better be it.

Q. What is your favourite part about the creative process and why?

A. There is a point where I can see I’ve written something real, it’s not just me trying to sound profound. That is a wonderful, wonderful moment. I realize I’ve tapped into something that is real and of God, and I just get to write it down because I found it, like a vein of gold.

It doesn’t happen often, but it’s a beautiful moment. It’s the best feeling in the world.

Q. How do you identify those moments?

A. They’re revealed to me, really. I know how I write when it’s me trying to be clever, or impress people, or score internet points. I also know how it feels when I’m writing something that’s true. It just flows differently.

There’s a point where I can’t not write it. It switches from something forced into something I have to finish, like a compulsion. I don’t want to say it’s like giving birth, but it’s a little like that.

Q. Before our interview, you mentioned that you don’t write for an audience. Can you expand on that?

A. I mean, I do sometimes write for an audience, but it’s not as good. I do have an audience now, mostly through Facebook, and also through a couple of magazines, but I try not to think about an audience at all. When there is something to say, I try to be true to the work itself in a vacuum.

C.S. Lewis talks about humility as being able to enjoy a cathedral you designed the same way anyone else would, with no more pleasure because you were the one who designed it.

That’s what I’m aiming for: to be the one who reveals the poem, but not someone who likes it any more than someone else’s poem, which is very hard.

Q. What are you most looking forward to in terms of your creativity?

A. One of the things that has happened in the past year is I became the poetry editor for Ekstasis magazine which is a Christian literary magazine started by Conor [Sweetman], who used to work with Love Is Moving. I am just being led into these places, and it’s been a real gift to me, but also humbling.

Q. What do you enjoy most about contributing to Love Is Moving magazine?

A. I am just so happy to be involved. It was such a happy surprise to be a part of this kind of community, and to see there’s a place for me and my kind of writing. I’m grateful that the value is seen in it.

Q. Have you learned anything about your creative process from regularly contributing?

A. I’ve learned the importance of writing in a community. The things I think are great often don’t land, while the things I think are not so great are sometimes the things people need to hear.

It’s taught me to think less about myself and think more about, not an audience, but about being part of a body as an artist, and what that means. God is able to use us in ways we don’t anticipate. The important thing is to show up and be a part of the community.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.